As politicians have sought ever more slogans on how to get tough on crime for their political campaigns, they eventually extended this destructive practice to the schools. Unfortunately, the flaws found in the punitive justice system at the adult level are the same flaws found in the punitive system when it is applied to schools in what they call Zero Tolerance.
The win/lose arena of the courtroom makes the stakes so high that people often rationalize that telling a little white lie in their case is less wrong than the injustice they might experience if they tell the truth and lose. In talking to teachers and school administrators, they say that Zero Tolerance disciplinary policies that so many schools have adopted promote dishonesty in a similar way.
When they believe that the application of a Zero Tolerance rule will result in an injustice, some school administrators are willing to be dishonest, or engage in their own violation of the policy, to achieve what they see as a more just outcome. Take the rule that requires a mandatory suspension from school for bringing drugs to school. If a child brings two aspirin to school in her back pack, does that warrant suspension from school? Not everyone thinks so.
How do school personnel get around the mandatory suspension rule? One said that, in the aspirin case, she asks the student questions, like did you really know this was aspirin? Did you know aspirin is a drug? She questions the student until she finds a reason to write the episode up as something other than bringing drugs to school.
Sometimes administrators or teaches simply report the violation as a lesser offense to avoid the overly harsh consequences that they see as a greater injustice than their dishonesty. Sometimes they don't report the violation at all, which is yet another violation, but one they see as a lesser wrong than doing what the Zero Tolerance rules require.
This is the problem with Zero Tolerance. It is a punitive system that uses punishment to impose control. When the crude instrument of punishment is the only tool you have to address misconduct, you are in a difficult situation. Now that physical punishment is no longer permitted in schools, what can they do?
Expulsion seems to be a common reaction. This is a bizarre punishment that deprives students of the learning that is needed to make them educated, functional adults, the very purpose schools are meant to serve. It not only inflicts punishment on the student, it punishes the tax payers who are paying for the school to teach the children who will be tomorrow's adults. As this means of punishment makes little sense, avoiding it makes a lot of sense. It's easy to see how a "white lie" could be viewed as less unjust than suspending a student from school.
But students are not dumb. Most of them know when a school administrator is violating the rules or lying on the report to avoid the consequences of the student's more serious violation. Here is a deeper problem. What moral learning does such dishonesty on the part of school administrators provide to the students? Does this represent an instance of mercy that is good to model for our children? Or does it model a disregard for rules or a devaluing of honesty? Which is worse, the student's violation or the administrator's?
This is a good example of how punitive justice is grounded on a flawed moral compass that gives contradictory guidance, even when matters of simple justice are at stake. Fortunately, there is a better way.
Restorative practices are beginning to be used in a growing number of schools to address disciplinary problems. This is a creative application of unitive justice that seeks healing and reconciliation, and accountability that is meaningful and causes no further harm. It is flexible, and can be adapted to the particular culture of the school and local customs. By attending to needs as they arise, restorative practices can create a dramatic shift in the school environment that many school administrators and students say is beyond what they thought was possible.
Information about implementing restorative practices in schools is now plentiful on the Internet. YouTube offers a variety of videos in which school administrators and students describe their experiences with this gentler, yet more effective, way of dealing with student misconduct. For example, here is one worth checking out: Restorative Justice: It's Elementary! (5.5 min.)
Posted on GenuineJustice.com on 8-25-10.